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Repeatedly the phrase “land flowing with milk and honey” is referenced to the promised land, making honey a good and positive indicator of abundance, among other things.

Yet honey was forbidden from being burnt on the altar. In Leviticus whether in raw form or incorporated into a recipe that would ultimately end up on the altar, honey was forbidden.

“"No grain offering that you bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey as a food offering to the Lord.” ‭‭Leviticus‬ ‭2:11‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The very next verse does not forbid honey to be offered to God, it allows for it

As an offering of firstfruits you may bring them to the Lord, but they shall not be offered on the altar for a pleasing aroma.” ‭‭Leviticus‬ ‭2:12‬ ‭ESV‬‬

I don’t want to focus on leaven but on the honey. Because while honey is not allowed another sticky substance is allowed, in fact it was specifically required that the full amount be burnt on the altar.

“and bring it to Aaron's sons the priests. And he shall take from it a handful of the fine flour and oil, with ALL of its frankincense, and the priest shall burn this as its memorial portion on the altar, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” ‭‭Leviticus‬ ‭2:2‬ ‭ESV‬

What was it about honey that made it unsuitable and rejected by God as a burnt offering but not as a first fruits offering.

The idea that honey will simply smoke up the place doesn’t seem sufficient of an argument to me because a burnt offering that was fully consumed would also char and smoke. Although I’m not ruling it out.

Why was honey not accepted as a burnt offering?

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And if after the explanation is given there is any NT applications, that would be well received too. For instance honey being a reference to words, sweet words in the OT might parallel in the NT. But it must still explain why honey was accepted or rejected depending on the sacrifice offered, so it remains on topic.

“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” ‭‭Psalms‬ ‭119:103‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil,” ‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭5:3‬ ‭ESV‬‬

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    related: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/32451/… – Bach Feb 25 '19 at 19:42
  • @Bach I looked at that question but it doesn’t address honey. Unless you are saying that honey is a leavening agent. Or maybe I should re read it a third time – Nihil Sine Deo Feb 25 '19 at 23:01
  • You misunderstood this comment. It was not intended as an answer at all. Just a helpful link to readers who might want to see more on this topic. I think you would agree that they are at least somewhat related. – Bach Feb 26 '19 at 1:45
  • Yes they are and I agree. You are correct I misunderstood the comment. Thank you for clarifying. – Nihil Sine Deo Feb 26 '19 at 2:21
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These are the kinds of questions that involve more cultural context and background research than word studies. Very good question, although a similar question was already asked as pointed out by Bach above.

Leviticus is a book mostly about the ritualistic system of Israel. As I've already explained in another post, God used in the OT and in the NT the languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), objects (sticks, cups, trees, mountains, etc), the natural environment (foods, beverages) that were already available to Israelites, Jews and Christians to modify them and adjust them his way to give them new significance. We do not see that God made people use things that were not available to them or that they were not familiar with.

Therefore, sacrifices, libations, slavery (actually servitude), the throwing of dices, the use of bread and wine, astrology (as seen in Job and Revelation 12), the use of numbers 3, 7, 12, 40, 70, and so on and so forth...these all existed in various forms in the ancient Near East before Moses and Israel.

So, what we see in Leviticus and somewhat elsewhere in the Pentateuch is that God demands Israel to perform different feasts and sacrifices and cultural practices that very lightly resembled that the pagans did, but with stark contrast and important differences. These differences is what made the Israelite feasts and sacrifices unique and sacrosanct.

See Leviticus 18.24-30:

Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. 29 For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. 30 So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Le 18:24–30.

This passage above mostly refers to bestiality (sex with animals), incest (sex with family members), witchcraft and divination (with animal parts), child sacrifice. But, that's the point! The pagans also performed their own sacrifices and feasts, but they misused certain animals ( the very animals that God forbids eating in the OT! ) and certain natural resources ( even blood ) such as honey. Thus, to not imitate them, God adjusted how Israelites were going to sacrifice and practice their cultural norms.

Let me cite one critical commentary that made the same observations you made:

The prohibition against honey may represent a reaction against the widespread use of honey in pagan cults, an explanation actually ventured by Maimonides. Indeed, we possess extensive comparative evidence that honey was frequently offered to pagan gods in the ancient Near East. In the Ugaritic epic of Keret, we read that nbt (cognate of Heb. nofet, “honey from a honeycomb”) was offered to the Syro-Canaanite god El. Cuneiform records from Mesopotamia and ancient Syria often list dishpu, “honey-nectar,” as an offering. By prohibiting the use of honey on the altar, the priestly laws may have been directed at eliminating pagan practices. There is a subtle suggestion that the aversion to nectar as a sacrificial substance may have been very ancient in biblical Israel. Whereas wine and olive oil were prized as ingredients for sacrifices, nectar was not.

Baruch A. Levine, Leviticus (The JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 12.

Additionally, the Hebrew word Devash in Lev. 2.11 is generic and it's not necessarily honey from bees (wild honey), but can also be nectars from dates and fruits. When it's Devash (honey) from bees, the text usually says so as in Judges 14.8-9.

Let me cite:

John E. Hartley

Yeast (שׂאר) and honey (דבשׁ) may never be added to a grain offering from which any portion will be burned on the altar. In the OT the kind of honey is not specified save in Judg 14:8–9, where the context defines the substance as “honey from bees,” clearly meaning wild honey. Whether beekeeping was practiced in Israel during the biblical period is uncertain, but doubtful. The majority of OT references to דבשׁ mean nectar of fruit, particularly from dates and possibly from other fruits. Since honey was the basic sweetener in ancient times, “a sweet substance” may be a better translation for דבשׁ (cf. A. Caquot, “דְּבַשׁ debhash” TDOT 3:128–31). Of course, דבשׁ did exclude the use of honey from bees in offerings that were to be burned on the altar. While the leftover portions may not be prepared with leaven (6:9–10[16–17]), honey may be spread on them. Loaves of firstfruits baked with yeast, however, may be presented as תנופה, “an elevated or wave offering”; none of these loaves, of course, is to be burned on the altar (cf. 23:17). Moreover, honey is included among the firstfruits presented to God in 2 Chr 31:5. This regulation stands in marked contrast to the common use of honey in the cultic rituals of Israel’s neighbors.

John E. Hartley, Leviticus (vol. 4; Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 31.

From Baruch E. Levine:

Most authorities—including Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Maimonides—insist that devash in the Bible refers primarily to the nectar of dates and possibly of other fruits. It is, after all, a general term for “sweetness.” The Akkadian cognate dishpu also had that more general usage. Furthermore, verse 12 must have intended the nectar of fruits because honey processed by bees would hardly have been called “first fruits” (reʾshit). It is reasonable to conclude that the prohibition set forth in our chapter was inclusive of both bee honey and nectars.

Baruch A. Levine, Leviticus (The JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 12.

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As an aside, I recommend you read the scholarly summary on the book of Leviticus by Dr. Michael S. Heiser which is equally beneficial for understanding Leviticus in general.

Title: Think like an Israelite

http://drmsh.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Wk1-Impurity-and-Sin-2.pdf

http://drmsh.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Wk2-Sacred-Space-and-Sacrifice-Heiser-GCB.pdf

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  • I'm familiar with this interpretation, however to me it is inadequate. In the same manner God could have forbidden fruits and bread because the pagans used them in their sacrifices. The fact of the matter is that the Torah did not forbid any pagan rite, only rites that smacked of immorality and corruption (incest, laceration for dead, child sacrifice, etc.). Since honey cannot be explained this way I think that this route (of disassociating itself from pagan customs) must be abandoned until we find something more satisfactory. – Bach Feb 26 '19 at 1:53
  • Err Bach. Nowhere did I mean to say that pagan rite were completely forbidden in any way. I said they were modified / adjusted. The worldviews were adjusted as well. This is telling in comparative studies in the ancient Near East and the Semitic and Near Eastern languages. I have to go, but tomorrow I can suggest another resource that I forgot and it gives a different angle. – XegesIs Feb 26 '19 at 2:40
  • Bach made my first point, to which you responded as anticipated. Land flowing with sweet nectar? I can imagine a cow that has so much milk it lactates without being milked and a honeycomb so full it drips but dates don’t flow and in order to get nectar from fruits one needs to process the fruit. If a fruit is leaking it’s already in putrefaction and fermenting. I’m familiar with the idea that it can be translated as dates but honey appears to be the best fitting. Jonathan ate some honey off the tip of his staff from the honeycomb. He wouldn’t need a staff for dates and dates don’t have combs. – Nihil Sine Deo Feb 26 '19 at 13:11
  • @Autodidact...Your examples are extremely exagerated. The fact that the land is descriptively said to be flowing with milk and honey and that Jonathan and Samson ate wild honey and to say that Devash cannot mean nectars is a non sequitur. It does not follow. Also "Flowing" does not mean it's literally found everywhere in ancient Canaan/Palestine/Israel. That does not prove it. The fact is that Devash has a wider semantic just like many other Hebrew words for plants and animals---We call that Hebrew language. You cannot change Hebrew just to suit your curiosity into this passage. – XegesIs Feb 27 '19 at 0:29
  • Granted...Semitic scholars do grant the fact that there might be other reasons we dont know from the Bible and ANE texts as to why Honey was prohibited. But, let's say so without exagerating the data we have one way or another. The fact remains that honey was used for pagan rituals. The fact also remains that the OT rituals distance themselves from the way pagans did their rituals. It does not have to be an either-or fallacy. It could be a combination of factors--it would not be the first time. – XegesIs Feb 27 '19 at 0:33
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I want to suggest that it is the fermentation process that is associated with these foods that makes them unfit for the Lord. Yeast or sourdough is known to come about through a fermentation process similar to wine and beer, and is also used as a fermentable and causes fermentation in other doughs. Honey was also commonly used in Egypt as a fermentable and was domesticated to produce the Egyptian old-time favorite alcoholic beverage: Mead. Evidence for honey being used as a fermentable can be found in the Hymn to Ninkasi.

Now I want to argue that the Egyptians and ancient people understood that a similar natural process was responsible for the production of yeast, beer, mead and wine. They were well aware that they are all caused through a similar fermentation process. If this is true then it is reasonable to say that yeast and honey were prohibited precisely because they were associated with the process of fermentation and production of alcohol. Alcohol was thought in ancient Israel to have a bad influence upon the consumer. The bible in many instances displays a negative attitude towards alcohol, and even associates it with lewdness and immoral sexual behavior. For example, in Gen. 9, Noah's nakedness and Ham's curse is brought about through wine. Hosea 4:11 does not display a very positive attitude towards wine either. Similarly, in Numbers 6 the Nazerite who wants to become holy and consecrated unto God must not drink any alcoholic beverages, from beer to wine or any thing that can make him drunk. The implications are thus clear, alcoholic beverages are not fit for the holy or the sacred. Yeast and honey which are associated with the fermentation process and are responsible for alcohol in wine and beer shall not be served for Yahweh either. In my opinion, that is also the reason why the Pascal lamb may not be eaten together with leavened bread, for it is a sacrifice to god and shall not be eaten together with the profane and the unholy.


The only difficulty with this theory is that wine is the prime example of an alcoholic beverage which comes about through fermentation yet it is commonly used in the bible for libation and sacrifice. How do we explain this? I will not pretend that I have an adequate answer to this, I will only say this: The tradition of wine as an offering to the gods is deeply ingrained in the Israelite culture. This tradition goes back to the very beginning of the nation. The patriarchs and the founders of Mosaic religion all offered wine up to Yahweh. Perhaps the biblical authors were not able to eradicate wine from being served in the temple, for it would have seemed hypocritical. Only the things that were not traditionally offered to god like beer and mead or yeast were effectively eliminated from the temple of God.

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  • Excellent points. But two points one you mentioned, wine can be poured as a drink offering and two honey was still accepted just not on the altar. Thank you for your response. – Nihil Sine Deo Apr 18 '19 at 18:03

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